Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.
– Men in Black
In the film, Tommy Lee Jones’ Kay wants to make Will Smith’s Jay consider what else he might be wrong about (beyond the existence of aliens). In doing so, Kay reinforces two related ideas: knowledge only ever accumulates, and by extension those who came before us were universally more ignorant. Neither one of those is entirely true (nor is it true that 500 years ago the Earth was widely considered to be flat). Knowledge can be lost. A popular example is concrete; we still have not definitively answered the question of how Roman concrete lasted so much longer than our modern attempts. The original recipes for Damascus steel and Greek fire are also gone even if we may have good hypotheses for what they might have been, and we apparently forgot how to prevent scurvy multiple times. Now, when contemporary antibiotics are losing their utility due increasing resistance, we are rediscovering effective antibacterial treatments from our medieval ancestors.
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